Dipali Sharma, PhD
Professor of Oncology
Kimmel Cancer Center
Johns Hopkins University
Unveiling the molecular links between obesity and breast cancer and developing strategies to break it.
Obesity is an important risk factor for breast cancer—a 5-unit increase in BMI is associated with a 12 percent increase in breast cancer risk. In the United States, about 36 percent of adults are obese, while approximately 13 percent of the world population is obese, and the prevalence is increasing globally. Dr. Sharma and her team study the molecular changes induced by obesity that promote breast cancer development, progression, and metastasis. They focus on the intersections between obesity and the gut microbiome (the bacteria that reside in our intestines). Many studies found that the complex makeup of the microbiome changes with disease or other alterations to our physiology—like fluctuations in weight—and these changes in bacterial populations may have profound effects on the body. Dr. Sharma’s team is working to unveil how the link between obesity and the microbiome may influence breast cancer.
The team looked for any microbial imbalance in breast cancer patients and identified key changes in the microbiome. They identified specific bacteria that could contribute to cancer progression, and the presence of these bacteria may be affected by a person’s weight.
Based on the team’s hypothesis that obesity and imbalances in the microbiome are intertwined risk factors that lead to breast cancer progression, they will next look for downstream effects that result in changes in the tumor microenvironment—non-tumor cells like immune cells and fat calls—that are caused by a microbial imbalance. They will investigate how that may induce a cancer-promoting environment and explore potential strategies to block these processes.
Dr. Sharma is a Professor in the Department of Oncology, Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins. She obtained her doctorate in Molecular Biology and Oncology from the University of Delhi. She then completed fellowships at both the University of Maryland and the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins.
The prevalence of obesity, an epidemic of major proportions in the United States today, has risen steadily over the last several decades. Research on the biological mechanisms underpinning the link between cancer and obesity is clearly a vitally important area, with major implications for both public health and fundamental cancer research. Dr. Sharma focuses on investigating the molecular links between obesity and cancer, emphasizing aspects that have potential clinical significance. Her studies on obesity-related hormones, adipocytokines, showed that leptin promotes the proliferative response and metastatic potential as well as modulates the expression of various genes involved in cell cycle, apoptosis and metastasis. Dr. Sharma is currently examining the potential of adiponectin as an antagonist using innovative approaches including nanotechnology to investigate these important aspects in obesity-breast tumorigenesis connection. Her lab is exploring the genes, molecules, hormones and cellular processes that could cause and promote cancer in obese people. Using various physiologically relevant models and cell lines, their aim is to find molecular targets that can be disrupted to break the obesity-cancer axis. She is exploring new strategies to disrupt the obesity-cancer connection using novel small molecule inhibitors as well as bioactive food components. Her overall goal is to understand the molecular networks by which obesity affects carcinogenesis and discover novel agents to effectively disrupt obesity-cancer axis.
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